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Vancouver area - day one


malachi
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Food

Kirin (Vancouver). Upscale and somewhat traditional mandarin restaurant that serves very good dim sum -- and is quite affordable as well (not "cheap" but a good deal). Standout dishes included excellent steamed pork buns that were less “artificially” sweet tasting than many, and which had a very nice texture balance. The scallop and prawn steamed dumplings were sweet and complex, but well balanced. Prawn and garlic spring rolls were crisp but not oily, with an excellent subtle bite from the garlic. Pork and prawn potstickers came with a fabulous vinegar dipping sauce and were very tasty – if perhaps a little lacking in the needed crispness from frying. Steamed pork and prawn dumplings with fish roe were very nice as well – though lacking in complexity. The jasmine tea was wonderful and service was professional. A medium sized lunch for two worked out to around $30CAN.

Wiggin Pier (Squamish). Unpretentious and very British little fish and chips place. Serves excellent fish and chips, with the choice of small or large portions and either Cod, Halibut of fish of the day. Fish was crispy and airy, not over-battered and not greasy. Chips were acceptable (could have been less mealy and more cooked by my taste). Several traditional British ales were available in nitrogen cans, along with a couple mass-market draught beers. Cheap, homey and tasty.

Coffee

JJ Bean on Commercial (Vancouver). Prototypical “hip” coffee bar look and feel in the “hipster” neighborhood in Vancouver. Serves their own roasts and blends and doesn’t focus on anything other than coffee and related drinks and products. La Marzocco four group automatic with timers per grouphead and a Swift grinder (which the manager said he hates – “easy to pull consistent good shots, impossible to pull great ones”). First double ristretto was served in the correct cup, though not pre-heated. Portafilter cleaning was minimal. Shot was about the right volume, but achieved by simply reducing duration (19 seconds) rather than by changing grind, etc. Crema was okay, but heavily streaked with frothy white. Espresso had a noticeable harsh note and little to no sweetness. Mouthfeel was dry and almost sandy. Heavy notes of caramel and charcoal. Tasted like a well-executed version of a Starbucks shot. Second double ristretto (different barista) was served in the wrong cup (a cappuccino cup) which was also not pre-heated. Portafilter cleaning a bit more thorough. Volume was higher than should have been the case for a ristretto (closer to a doppio) – perhaps due to the larger cup size. Duration was around 22 seconds. Crema was much better than first shot, with only a touch of frothy white. There was still a harsh, bitter flavor note, but the mouthfeel was much better – creamy and thick. Strong caramel, chocolate and burnt toast notes. Barista and manager very nice, helpful and concerned that my espresso be what I wanted. Barista commented that, in her opinion, the boiler temp might be off.

Café Artigiano off Robson (Vancouver). Stylish, downtown espresso place specializing in Latte art. Mostly a tourist joint. La Marzocco four group machine, Swift grinder and a Mazzer Super Jolly grinder as well. Serving Intelligensia Black Cat espresso blend, which the manager loves and feels is the best espresso blend commercially available. As with JJ Bean, this blend is a dark roast that is what one would find in most good (trendy) Seattle bars. First double ristretto was served in the correct cup, though again not preheated. Shot was a doppio, not a ristretto. Manager came over, asked how it was, looked at it and apologized. Shot was actually a nice double espresso, but not a ristretto. I said so. He took it away, and personally pulled a ristretto. In this case, he used the Mazzer not the Swift. I don’t know if he dialed down the grind, but the shot time was around 22 seconds. Gorgeous crema and a wonderful, thick and rich mouthfeel, but again with a noticeable bitter note in the initial taste. Strong notes of chocolate dominate, with some burnt toast and charcoal and an undercurrent of caramel. There is a little sweetness from the caramel that results in a slightly more balanced taste that the better of the two JJ Bean on Commercial shots.

(I went to a couple other espresso places on Commerical - all of which served mediocre to awful coffee to me.)

fanatic...

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(blush)

Yeah - I'm a little bit obsessed, what can I say.

I find that ordering a ristretto shot ("restricted" - a shortened volume shot drawn over the same time using a fine grind) tends to be a good way to do an initial test of a bar's espresso quality.

My usual sequence is double ristretto, double cappuccino, double espresso. This usually gives me a good idea of the quality and flavour of someone's espresso drinks.

fanatic...

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Where and when have you actually had a ristretto shot that has satisfied you? Its standards are so debated and conflicting that I wonder if it possible for it to ever be done "properly"...

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I've had truly great ristretto from three locations in Seattle, one in the Bay Area and at least a couple dozen times at the place I work at -- all in the last year. Probably the best I had was at Espresso Vivace in Seattle (though, truth be told, they are rather inconsistent there so I would argue that Hines St Public Market is the better choice with Zoka being a near tie for second).

I don't know about "standard" but the definition that I've come to understand (which may well be local to Northern California and the Pacific Northwest) is espresso of reduced volume derived from restricted flow (in the area of 0.75 ounces of espresso from a draw of 24-27 seconds). Where I work we do this by stepping the grind down two notches from what the normal setting is at that moment (on average we adjust grind between 5 and 10 times a day). The espresso usually begins to draw fully in 6 to 8 seconds (we try to only place the cup below the spout after the espresso from the preinfusion has poured into the drip tray). At some point between 22 and 27 seconds the first white will appear and the draw is terminated.

Shrug - it's all personal taste, but an espresso drawn in this manner is (to me) richer, denser and more complex in flavour - while also possessing more sweetness than a normal espresso.

I've tasted, heard (and read) about the Italien espressos and standards and how they differ - and have had "ristretto" shots in other locations that are simply reduced draws (15 to 20 seconds). So I understand there is no "standard." At a certain level, it's besides the point. By asking for a "ristretto" shot I'm asking someone to make their version of a ristretto. Their definition and process will illustrate a lot about the business and practice. In tasting it, I try to evaluate it in light of their definition - but more importantly in light of the local coffee culture and as compared to other local versions of the drink. I then compare to their renditions of the cappuccino and straight espresso. This process gives me a good overall picture of the espresso available. Given the range of personal tastes, styles, expectations and definitions throughout "espresso" - this is probably the only way to review espresso. No? I guess I could preceed such reviews with a statement about my own tastes, definitions an expectations - thus allowing the reader to interpret how they might feel about the espresso by comparing their tastes with mine - and then viewing the review through that lens. But then I'd probably come across as even more of a freak than I already do.... (grin)

fanatic...

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Having been to Vancouver only once for a quick that involved a single meal in a rather non-descript suburban restaurant, I can't comment on the food scene but just love reading these comments on the espresso scene and look forward to more.

Malachi - where is it that you work exactly? I'm always in favor of trying out a place that serves a good ristretto as that's what I make at home exclusively (well it's actually a doppio ristretto if you wanna get specific). Damned if I know scientifically what causes it but I definitely get a sweeter and less bitter shot. I'm intrigued by the notion of letting the first bit of liquid from the preinfusion go straight to the drip tray. How muich is this in terms of length? perhaps a second or so of pull time or do you judge by color?

Feel free to answer this on your thread at Cofeegeek if you prefer as I spend a bit more time there than I do here.

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Malachi- since you are a coffee freak, have you tried coffee at 5Senses? I was there a couple of weeks ago, and they served me the best coffee I have had in a long time. I didn't even ask what it was and how it was grinded. But you could check it out, on top of that it's an excuse to savor the wonderful Thomas Haas pastries there. Go in the morning as they are fresh and taste much better.

"I hate people who are not serious about their meals." Oscar Wilde

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I've had their coffee before. It's quite good. But to be honest, so far I'm finding that Vancouver is a two horse town when it comes to coffee (JJ Bean and Artigiano).

fanatic...

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